21 July 2017

A Change of Place

by Thomas Pluck

I first encountered Thomas Pluck in 2011 when I read  a remarkable tale in A Twist of Noir called "The Uncleared."  You can read it here.  When I reviewed it at Little Big Crimes I wrote that "I can easily see this story as the outline for one of those looong broody tales that EQMM loves so much. Instead he fit it on a postcard, and did it with no sense of cramming or shorthand.  Quite remarkable."  It is that.

Thomas's most recent book is BAD BOY BOOGIE, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller.  Ken Bruen called it a "must re-read novel."  And like me, he is a New Jersey boy.  What else do you need to know?  

He made a guest appearance here in March, which should have warned him off, but apparently he is a slow learner and agreed to take a permanent seat at our table.  This is his first shot as a regular.  I'm sure you will enjoy it. Please make him welcome, and remind him to cut the cards.   - Robert Lopresti

Hello, everybody. I'm honored to join the crew here at SleuthSayers, and I hope you'll enjoy my triweekly musings here. And thank you for the kind words, Robert. I keep going back to "The Uncleared" and there's a novel waiting to come out, once I visit Alaska... which brings me to the subject of today's post. But first, let me say how I came to be here.

I've been a fan of the crime and mystery genre since grade school, when I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie and Encyclopedia Brown. Later came the Fletch series, Ian Fleming, and Hammett brought me into hardboiled. For a good while my trinity was Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, and the pet shop cozies of Barbara Block (no relation) and now I read everyone from Hilary Davidson and Tana French to Joe Lansdale and Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley, and I have a soft spot for Liza Cody's Bucket Nut wrestler tales with Eva Wylie, and Christa Faust's Angel Dare series. I read outside the genre a lot as well. Stewart O'Nan, Victor LaValle, Laird Barron, Joyce Carol Oates (though she does write suspense as well), Roxane Gay. To get an idea of the range, I recommend Protectors 2: Heroes, the anthology I edited to benefit The National Association to Protect Children, which has a solid core of mystery with fantasy, horror, lit, SF, and poetry mixed in.

But enough about me, we're here to talk writing. I recently returned from a two week tour of central Europe by car, where my wife Sarah, and my best friend Johnny and I toured seven countries in 3800 kilometers, having adventures and seeing both expected and uncommon sights. And of course, it inspired several story ideas. I've always felt envious of writers who can master a sense of place without having physically visited it. Lawrence Block for one, has written several stories about countries and cities he's never been to--despite being an accomplished world traveler--and the level of verisimilitude he manages never makes you question whether he's been there.

I don't always visit areas I want to write about, or write about places I've been, but some can't help but inspire a good story. In Munich, we stayed in an area where there was a high refugee population, which gave me a good view of the stark differences; the heart of an old city blocks away from a modern one. In the space of twenty minutes we walked from a tight neighborhood of buildings hundreds of years old celebrating Charlemagne, through a tony open mall where opera was performed, to a grimier urban red light district reminiscent of old Times Square.

In Amsterdam, the streets were clogged with bicycles. And our canal boat guide joked that the canals were filled with them, too. It didn't take much to make me wonder how easy it would be to chain someone to their bike with a few cinder blocks and chuck them into the water. (I might have even thought it a fitting end for a couple of cyclists who blew through pedestrian walkways while looking at their phones.) That's not so different from New Amsterdam, New York, these days with cars parking in the bike lanes and bicyclists veering onto the sidewalks and phone-addled pedestrians walking wherever they please, but there was no electricity in the air in the older city; everyone was relaxed, perhaps due to the easy access to the demon weed. (The one place they weren't relaxed was in the supermarket, the munchies, I suppose).

The story that relied on my travels the most was Blade of Dishonor, which I based on my trip to Japan to see my oldest friend compete in his first martial arts competition, train at his teacher's school, and galavant throughout Tokyo and Niigata with a bunch of rowdy fighters. That was such a culture shock that I knew I'd write about it someday, and was glad David Cranmer gave me the excuse, when he approached me to write a story about a fighter who comes into possession of a stolen sword.

Some writers draw inspiration from familiarity. The same routine, the comfortable writing room, or spot--I have a nook in the parlor with a view of Manhattan in winter, and trees the rest of the year--but others need a jolt, and some of us benefit from both. I couldn't visit the Talheim Death Pit in Germany before I wrote "Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind" for Lawrence Block's upcoming art-themed anthology Alive in Shape and Color. But I visited the area last week, and saw similar remains in the Neues Museum in Berlin, just in time for final edits. But the odd thing was, I changed nothing. What I'd come up with in my imagination felt true enough. There's one scene in a quaint Medieval village that drew on a real visit, but nothing I couldn't have gotten from a trip through Google Maps and Street View, and perusing the Medieval Justice and Torture Museum website.

So maybe you can write stories without ever leaving your chair. That's where the work gets done. And I'm glad I got back to it last night, savoring a dram of peaty scotch and writing a safecracking scene in the basement of a colonial-era tavern that never existed, based on several that are now lost to history. That's a place I like to visit in my head, and I hope it will be as enjoyable for readers to join me there on the page.

What works for you? Are your best vacations in your head, or do you draw from the real ones for inspiration?

-TP

12 comments:

Art Taylor said...

Welcome! And a great first post! I do indeed find my own writing inspired often by travel--not just directly by setting or incident sparking ideas but also just by the change of pace loosening the mind somehow. Looking forward to your story in the new anthology--and to your posts here down the road, of course!

John Floyd said...

Great column! And welcome to SleuthSayers--it's good to have you here.

R.T. Lawton said...

Thomas, nice blog. Welcome to SleuthSayers. It's a nice writing family to belong to.

Robert Lopresti said...

Welcome to the asylum, Thomas. Glad to have you aboard. Who was it who said that the goal of travel is to come home and see it with different eyes? THat tends to be what happens to me. I go to Israel and get an idea for a story set in Pennsylvania. And so on.

B.K. Stevens said...

I enjoyed your post, Thomas, and I'm glad you've decided to become a regular SleuthSayer. Welcome! I do tend to set stories and novels in places where I've lived (I've moved around a lot, so I still have a range of settings to choose from) or at least visited. Setting seldom plays a major role for me, but it still feels more comfortable to write stories that take place in places I know fairly well. If setting plays no role, I often leave it unspecified. If they like, readers can imagine the events in the story happened next door.

Steve Liskow said...

Welcome, Thomas.

I usually set stories in general areas where I have lived, but mostly so I can shift things around and still maintain a consistent ambiance. Research is important, but finding a piece of information I didn't expect is like waving a bright shiny object in front of a child. I'm off and running until something pulls me back to the task at hand.

I think most of us grew up reading some of the same authors to get here, but your reading list is impressively wide.

Looking forward to your next post.

Mary Sutton said...

Welcome!

I don't get to travel much (at least not outside my SW PA region), but I can and do draw on places I've been for stories. I just finished one inspired by the time I spent in Puerto Rico right after college.

Mary/Liz

O'Neil De Noux said...

Glad to have you.

Eve Fisher said...

Welcome, and a great post, Thomas! We're a fun crowd, but watch out for Velma. She packs quite a wallop, whether with a whiskey or a slap. Looking forward to hearing more from you.

Thomas Pluck said...

Thank you all for welcome! I'm glad to be aboard.

Barb Goffman said...

Welcome aboard! I don't travel much and don't use setting as much as I should. I especially like setting when it helps reveal character, thus propelling plot forward.

janice law said...

Welcome! I look forward to reading more of your blogs!